Raising Your Voice
Words by Jelena Ćirić
Photography by Golli
“I’m not necessarily talking about my music, I’m talking about the burning issues,” Bubbi Morthens tells me, as we sit in a bakery in the town of Mosfellsbær. Though we’re here to talk about his career, he steers the conversation through topics like refugees, populism, and climate change. For nearly 40 years, Bubbi (a nickname for Ásbjörn), has made a career in music by speaking his mind, and he’s never been at a loss for words.
Since the release of his debut album Ísbjarnarblús (Polar Bear Blues) in 1979, Bubbi has changed the course of Icelandic music many times over, both as a solo artist and member of renowned bands such as Utangarðsmenn and Egó. While his musical style has pulled from folk, rock, punk, reggae, and other traditions, its central characteristic has always been powerful lyrics. These lyrics, which have always unflinchingly criticised Icelandic society, have led many to see the songwriter as a voice of the people. Bubbi is quick to point out, however, that “the people” don’t always agree with what he has to say – yet that may be the very fact that has kept his music relevant for four decades.
Poverty, alcoholism, and abuse coloured Bubbi’s early life. Nevertheless, he tells me, “My childhood overall was wonderful. My dad was a huge nature lover, and we always spent summers in the countryside. He was very musical and his brother [Haukur Morthens] was a very famous singer. There was a lot of music in my mother’s family, too.” Bubbi’s Danish mother also introduced him to literature when he was a boy. “I lived in the world of books: that was my escape from my worries.” When the young Bubbi first heard The Beatles, he suddenly knew exactly what he wanted to do in life. “It didn’t matter what was put in front of me or what kind of troubles I had, I always knew that I would be a musician.”
School, however, proved challenging for the young Ásbjörn. Learning disabilities were the cause, but there was very little awareness about them at the time in Iceland. It wasn’t until he moved to Denmark at the age of 14 that Bubbi was diagnosed with both dysgraphia and dyscalculia. Similar to dyslexia, these learning disabilities affect the ability to write and use numbers, respectively. Bubbi’s teachers decided that instead of a written exam in the spring, he would hold a concert. “I was reborn. That’s when I finally felt that I wasn’t a loser, I wasn’t stupid. It somehow gave me the wind beneath my wings. I felt I could fly.”
In 1971, when Bubbi was nearly 16, he returned to Iceland and started working as a fisherman in the remote town of Bolungarvík in the Westfjords. The backbreaking work had the effect of awakening his social consciousness. “When I was a kid, there were always songs on the radio about fishing and it was described as being so great. But my experience of it was terrible. It was brutal, hard-core slavery. It was a really tough society, just men, nothing but machoism everywhere. I had so much anger from my childhood, from being abused, that I just thought that was how it was supposed to be.”
The brutal lifestyle was one of Bubbi’s earliest inspirations, leading him to write and perform songs for his fellow workers, who found them instantly relatable. “I was singing them for the fishermen my age, and they understood them. They said ‘These aren’t the songs mom and dad listened to on the radio, you’re singing about our reality.’”
In 1979, at the age of 24, Bubbi released his solo debut, Ísbjarnablús. A folk-rock record with a dash of punk, the album was an overnight success. “I remember that I had imagined what it would feel like when everyone knows who you are. And then it happened to me, in a single day. But nothing changed. I felt just as terrible. I was just me, still, in my own skin, with my problems.” When the album’s distributor called Bubbi to pick up his cheque, he tells me, he used it to buy hash, down to the last penny. “I was stoned every day for 18 years.”
Despite struggling with addiction and its underlying causes, Bubbi was incredibly prolific in his early career, releasing more than a dozen albums in just a few years. “Every single album I made was a success. But everything was a mess in my personal life. It was a really long journey to be able to face these things and work through them. I’m still working through them.”
While Bubbi is probably the best-known musician in Iceland, he’s never been one to court his audience, instead unabashedly reflecting and criticising Icelandic society. One example is his 1984 song Strákarnir á Borginni (The Boys at the Borg Club), about homophobia, which was rampant in Iceland at the time. “I was playing at clubs and I saw it happening right in front of me. They were beaten, they were spit on, they were banned from entering clubs. That’s why I wrote that song. And I remember it wasn’t popular.”
“It’s always been very important to me to not keep quiet. Iceland isn’t big. And in such a small society, the danger is that you don’t dare to take a stance because you’re afraid your neighbour will disagree. I want to be able to say to my children before I die: ‘I didn’t stay silent. I took a stance.’”
His upcoming album Regnbogastræti (Rainbow Street) is no exception. The first single Velkomin (Welcome) is about refugees. “We have to welcome refugees, without hesitation. We must show love and sympathy and social consciousness. Iceland is absolutely big enough to welcome people and give them opportunities and give their children opportunities. That view is not very popular among a large group of people. But it’s incredibly important that it’s heard.”
The lyrics of the album’s title song touch on plastic in the oceans, politics and truth, and the search for meaning in life. But these days, one issue is foremost in the songwriter’s mind. “The situation is this: nothing really matters except that we have to stop harassing the Earth. If we don’t do that, then the human race will disappear. We can’t be human if we walk away from the truth. That’s really what I’m singing about on Regnbogastræti. And we have to have hope. Without hope, there’s no reason to exist.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.